By Zhiqun Zhu*
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s New Year proposal to Taiwan for reunification with China based on “democratic consultation” and Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen’s swift rejection of the “One Country, Two Systems” model reignited debate about China-Taiwan relations. Analysts disagree over the status quo of cross-Taiwan Strait relations and what lies ahead for Taiwan, mainland China and the United States. For example, in a National Interest online article, American Enterprise Institute researcher Michael Mazza criticized my Washington Post op-ed about cross-strait relations and defended Tsai’s claim to have maintained the status quo since taking office in 2016. However, Mazza’s narrative is full of misinformation and misinterpretations.
First, Mazza challenged the assessment that cross-strait relations were “stable and friendly” during the Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-2016). Anyone with knowledge of President Ma’s mainland policies will agree that he is commendable for striving to maintain stability in cross-strait relations. During his presidency, the two sides of the Taiwan Strait signed 23 agreements, Taiwan was able to participate in international events including attending the World Health Assembly, and millions of mainland tourists visited the island yearly, supporting local businesses. Cross-strait rapprochement culminated in the historic and cordial Ma-Xi meeting in Singapore in November 2015. The Tsai administration succeeding Ma put an end to the positive momentum, which, if maintained, could have led the two sides to sign a peace agreement. The fact is that under Ma, Taiwan’s relations with both the United States and mainland China were the best in decades. The overall picture is clear: cross-strait relations under Ma were better than any time since 1949. The assessment that cross-strait relations were “stable and friendly” under Ma is obviously accurate if one compares the Ma era with the Tsai administration. By lambasting the objective appraisal of cross-strait relations under Ma, is Mazza suggesting that the frosty relationship in the Tsai era is “stable and friendly”? Or is he trying to create “alternative facts”?
Second, Mazza gave credit to Ma’s predecessor Chen Shui-bian for opening the direct links between Taiwan and the mainland by claiming that cross-strait direct flights occurred on Chen’s watch. This may appear true, but Mazza conveniently ignored the fact that Chen reluctantly allowed limited and restrictive “charter flights” between the two sides during the Chinese New Year and other major holidays, only after heavy pressure from Taiwanese businesspeople who worked on the mainland and wanted to return home for the holidays. Real regular and historic direct flights started in July 2008 after President Ma took office. On the contrary, Chen did much to harm cross-strait relations by taking provocative approaches, including staging a referendum favored by Taiwan independence supporters, which prompted a stern warning from U.S. President George W. Bush that Taiwan should not change the status quo unilaterally. Nevertheless, at least Chen was honest in one thing: he understood the limits to what he could do in cross-strait relations. In response to pro-independence supporters to push for Taiwan’s de jure independence and change Taiwan’s official name to “Republic of Taiwan”, Chen bluntly stated: it’s impossible; I just cannot do it.
Third, Mazza defended President Tsai’s claim that she maintained the cross-strait status quo. This is the most egregious error Mazza made. The so-called status quo that Tsai inherited in 2016 was based on the “1992 Consensus” agreed upon between her predecessor and the mainland, whereby Taiwan and the mainland agree there is only “one China” but leave its exact meaning undefined. Tsai unilaterally junked the “1992 Consensus”, upending the status quo and making cross-strait political dialogue impossible. Further, Tsai equated the “1992 Consensus” with “One Country, Two Systems,” which appeared to be a deliberate misinterpretation to justify her failed mainland policy. Tsai’s misconception of the “1992 Consensus” has already been rebuked by scholars and opposition leaders in Taiwan. One would either be innocently naive or intentionally dishonest to believe that Tsai has maintained the status quo despite her lip service to the Republic of China Constitution. Mazza apparently fell victim to the Tsai administration’s official propaganda and failed to hear rational voices within Taiwan such as popular new Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, who calls the “1992 Consensus” the stabilizer of cross-strait relations. Mazza may also be unaware of latest polls such as the one by Taipei’s Cross-Strait Policy Association showing that over 60% in Taiwan are dissatisfied with Tsai’s mainland policy.
The “1992 Consensus,” despite its vagueness, allowed the two sides to approach each other pragmatically. The “one China” that the two sides agreed to pursue is a future China created by them together, as proposed by the late Wang Daohan, president of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits on the mainland. Beijing’s insistence that the two sides agree they both belong to “one China” is not a demand imposed on Taiwan; it has been the basis of cross-strait interactions since the very beginning. If you claim before going into talks with Beijing that Taiwan is already a separate country from China, then what is to be discussed? Do you expect Beijing to accept this unilateral change of status quo?
Mazza ended his essay bizarrely with an assertion that “Uncoerced unification is a Chinese pipe dream.” One wonders what he is advocating here. Coerced unification? As a foreign policy analyst, Mazza should know that American officials and scholars have long maintained that the United States is unwavering in its conviction that any resolution of cross-strait differences must be achieved peacefully and in a manner acceptable to people on both sides of the strait. Claiming that Taiwan and China are two separate countries or pushing for Taiwan’s de jure independence from China may make some people feel good, but it unilaterally changes the status quo, which may lead to dangerous military conflict in the Taiwan Strait, directly involving the United States.
President Tsai could certainly discard the “1992 Consensus” and reject Beijing’s reunification proposal, but what is her plan to improve cross-strait relations? That is the question many people in and outside Taiwan have been asking. Likewise, Mr. Mazza is strongly encouraged to come up with a viable proposal for improving cross-strait relations instead of stating the obvious that the Taiwanese have “acclimated to their own culture” or vigorously defending Tsai’s failed mainland policy.
*Zhiqun Zhu, PhD, is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. He is the author and editor of a dozen books, including China’s New Diplomacy: Rationale, Strategies and Significance (Ashgate, 2013) and US-China Relations in the 21st Century: Power Transition and Peace (Routledge, 2005).